Home / Features / It's Hard Out There for Everyone
Services 4 Authors

It's Hard Out There for Everyone

One thing that is lost in the self-publishing/traditional publishing debate is just how hard it is to sell any kind of book.  It’s as if pointing out that it’s difficult to sell self-published books, it implies it’s easy to sell traditionally-published books.  It’s not – it’s hard to sell everything.  One of the criticisms of self-publishing is people saying, “But self-publishers need to market all the time! When is there time to write???”  Unless you’re Dan Brown, or some other high-profile writer, most writers have to spend a whole lot of time marketing.

This could be an argument against self-publishing: if it’s so hard to sell a traditionally published book, why even both self-publishing, as it’s a potentially futile exercise.  You won’t get a lot of argument from me there: it’s true, selling self-published books is hard.  But so is getting traditionally published – precisely because it’s so hard to sell books, they look more towards those books that are more likely to sell more easily.

What it comes down to, though, is that we’re all in the same boat.  This whole debate should be us vs. them, but how in the hell can we get people to read more.  A post at Digital Book World about the Rick Moody Twitter experiment (he posted a story in installments on Twitter) is particularly telling about how hard it is for all publishers and bookstore owners, not just us lowly self-publishers.  The post links to another post by the manager of Vroman’s bookstore where he says:

The Moody Twitter experiment (and Moody wasn’t to blame for its failure, though I’m sure the first couple comments will be “ZOMG!1! Rick Moody is teh suck!1!!1?) depressed me for a number of reasons.  First, it made me wonder what we’re all doing on Twitter.  If so many of my followers are book industry people, am I wasting my time with it?  All this time, I’d hoped I was reaching customers.  To be sure, Twitter is useful for talking to colleagues in the book industry, and I’ll continue to use it for that purpose, but if it doesn’t have a reach beyond that, I’m not sure what the point is.  So much of the dialog that happens on Twitter and on the literary blogs feels masturbatory to me.  It’s the same couple hundred people talking about the same issues to the same audience.  Is that what I’ve been doing these past few years?  Is that what the book business is at this point?  If it is, then to quote the modern day philosopher Bunk Moreland “We ain’t about much.”

The book business is in major decline, and while we can all howl about the reasons why, the main one, it seems to me, is that not enough people read (and those who do, read less than they used to).  There are more ways than ever to get your entertainment and information, and books are having a lot of trouble keeping up.  Those of us who rely on selling books for a living need to devote a lot of time to finding people who are not readers.  We have to grow our market, or we are in for a very dark future indeed.   The reaction to this Twitter experiment seems to indicate to me that we’re not all that interested in doing it.  Or maybe we are, as long as it doesn’t interrupt our conversations about ebook formatting and the National Book Awards.

In other words, those at the top of the literary food chain – a major retailer like Vroman’s, where a self-publisher might dream of a book being housed – are having as much trouble unloading books as self-publishers themselves.  And just like a site like this might be an echo chamber of self-publishers reading about other self-publishers and possibly not buying anything, the same thing is occurring for everyone.

Which is one reason why the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate is so stupid.  We’re all trying to get people to buy our books.  There’s a lot traditionally published writers and sellers can learn from the sometimes-innovative approaches of self-publishers and vice versa.  Reading is on decline just as – somehow – there are more books being produced than ever.  I guess writers aren’t very voracious book buyers.  But basically, we’re all trying to reach readers in our own way in a very difficult environment, so criticizing self-publishing as the means of production should be the least of people’s worries – it should moreso be about how to make reading attractive to a new generation of readers.

Some might say that self-publishing dilutes the field even further by introducing books to people that should never be read and so turn them off of reading.  Possibly – but on the flipside, the possibility of being able to publish your own book could also make reading and writing more attractive to a new generation of readers. To me, that outweighs the former by a lot.

I read recently (can’t remember where) that McSweeney’s considers it a success to sell 3000 books of an edition.  McSWEENEY’S – a publisher that can get books reviewed most anywhere and has a huge built-in fan base.  That should tell you the state of bookselling.  The problem isn’t that it’s hard to sell self-published books.  The problem is that it’s hard to sell books.  Period.

About Henry Baum

Profile photo of Henry Baum
Author of three self-published novels and one traditionally published (Soft Skull Press, Canongate, and Hachette Littératures). Recipient of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival, the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction, and the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Spain. He's the founder of SPR.

13 comments

  1. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of Joel Friedlander

    “Which is one reason why the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing debate is so stupid. We’re all trying to get people to buy our books.”

    Have to agree with that, Henry. A lot of wasted time, energy, rhetoric and good will over a pointless debate. The level of animosity can be startling. Maybe we should celebrate that there are so many ways to get to print, that book publishing has been democratized as much as it has, that the possibility of ebooks may generate a flowering of literature (hey, it could happen)…

    Maybe we should just all get together and gang up on the real bloodsuckers, the predatory “vanity” operations. Now that’s a fight worth fighting, and educating people about.

  2. > The problem isn’t that it’s hard to sell self-published books.
    > The problem is that it’s hard to sell books. Period.

    wow. what insight. you just noticed this?

    -bowerbird

  3. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    And you’re a prick, noticed that? Leave the internet.

    A little context for everyone else – bowerbird has a habit of spreading joy online:

    http://www.ditchwalk.com/2009/12/01/the-new-money-flow/

  4. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of Will Entrekin

    “Unless you’re Dan Brown, or some other high-profile writer, most writers have to spend a whole lot of time marketing.”

    Wait, what? Are you saying Dan Brown doesn’t spend a whole lot of time marketing? I’d argue he does, or at least did; I am fairly certain his publisher booked him for a massive pre-publication tour of booksellers and bookstores several months prior to the publication of The Da Vinci Code. And no, doesn’t have to now, but that’s mainly because he set up such an astonishing foundation.

    It’s worth remembering his foundation, too; forgotten pseudonymous book before Digital Fortress and Angels & Demons, neither of which did . . . well, neither of which were The Da Vinci Code, obviously.

    Really, though, I think that focusing too much attention on selling books can be detrimental; really, we need to concentrate on writing the best books we can. I mean, sure, I hope people buy my book, I guess, but mostly I just want people to read the damned thing. Which they have; by the McSweeney’s standard you note, in fact, it’s been a smashing success so far, which is pleasing.

    It’s also worth noting McSweeney’s is really sort of self-publishing when you look at it. Eggers is the publisher, founder, editor, etc., and McSweeney’s publishes his books . . . I’m not saying it’s identical, but it’s certainly not far off. In fact, the first thing I thought of when I read about Backword Books was McSweeney’s. Which makes it interesting when the National Book Critics Circle recognizes Eggers’ books; they are, by many definitions, recognizing a self-published author. Just self-publishing with really good distribution, presence in a bookstore, and, well, hipster cache, really.

  5. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    Obviously Dan Brown has to market – but not in the way other people market – groveling for attention through blogs, Twitter, etc. etc. He doesn’t have to claw as much for attention.

    McSweeney’s is technically a kind of self-publishing but the books are in Barnes & Noble, front and center. He’s in a different stratosphere, like Dan Brown.

  6. henry baum said:
    > And you’re a prick, noticed that? Leave the internet.

    ad hominem, anyone?

    look, i understand. you’re just another author who is
    trying to market his books by groveling for attention,
    through blogs, twitter, etc. etc., so you write this pap
    so you can append your credentials and your plugs,
    thereby reminding the audience one more time that
    you have a book for sale — look! my book, for sale! –
    but seriously, do you think a conclusion as weak as
    “it’s hard for everyone to sell their books these days”
    really _justifies_ a blog article? oh, sure, your little
    echo-chamber is going to tweet it — and retweet it –
    but is this drivel how you want to represent yourself?

    i mean, if it is, then fine… but gee, _really_?

    -bowerbird

  7. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    I probably shouldn’t bother, but you bug me. That wasn’t ad hominem, these insults are pretty standard for you – in fact, all I’ve seen – so I think calling you a prick is relevant. You don’t get away with being a prick over and over again just because you make a point.

    This post builds on something I wrote earlier. Self-publishing is very often criticized for the fact that so few self-published books sell. What’s left out of this discussion is the difficulty of selling books across the spectrum, but self-publishing takes the brunt of the abuse.

    Here: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/countering-the-myth-why-self-publishing-works/

  8. henry baum said:
    > That wasn’t ad hominem, these insults are pretty standard for you
    > – in fact, all I’ve seen – so I think calling you a prick is relevant.

    great. you reveal that you don’t even know what “ad hominem” means.

    if you want to argue against what i said, argue against what i said.
    throwing an insult at me personally does not counter the argument.

    > You don’t get away with being a prick over and over again
    > just because you make a point.

    and you don’t get away with being a prick by ignoring my point,
    even if you do it over and over again. and then do it some more.

    > This post builds on something I wrote earlier.

    oh, i see now. it took you _two_ posts to come to a conclusion
    that is so obvious that it didn’t even need to be made. gee, ok…

    listen up. this is how you’re representing yourself, henry baum.

    seriously, is this how you _want_ to be representing yourself?

    -bowerbird

  9. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    I know exactly what ad hominem means. Cynicism is your M.O. Calling you out for that means I can disregard your point because you just spread hostility wherever you go. It’s not as if you’re making rational arguments and then I just threw in an insult to try and win the argument. The entire basis of your criticism is hostility. There’s a difference. Bullies hide behind ad hominem. That’s what you’re doing. Bullies also can’t take the same kind of criticism. Dish it but can’t take it.

    Is this how I want to be representing myself? Are you kidding me? The person who hides behind an anonymous name blindly spreading cynicism asks me that?

    Your points are not worth arguing against because they come from a place of such raw cynicism. Yes, part of the reason I posted this is to have a web presence online. Obviously. But I thought the Vroman’s post was interesting, so I devised a post around it. By you saying that my only motive is ambition shows that you’ve lost reason and replaced it with pure cynicism. There’s no point having a discussion with someone taking that pose.

    I knew by addressing this I was opening myself up for more crap from you, but your shit needs to be addressed.

  10. if i wanted to “hide behind an anonymous name” here,
    i woulda made one up. i wouldn’t use the same name
    i have used on a continuous basis for over 20 years,
    including the 14 years i’ve been active in cyberspace,
    discussing electronic publishing for that entire period.

    if i’ve been “hiding”, i have been doing a very poor job…

    and you make this abundantly clear to people when you
    say you’re familiar with my “m.o.” of course, you’re not.
    but that’s beside the point that it is fairly easy to find my
    comments on many e-book blogs, all over cyberspace.
    so, again, that just shows how bad i must be at “hiding”.

    > I knew by addressing this I was opening myself up for
    > more crap from you, but your shit needs to be addressed.

    well, at least you’ve dropped any pretense of a discussion of
    the point, and now openly admit you have made this about me.
    so hey, go ahead, take all the pot-shots you want to about me…
    i don’t even care if you spell my name right, because i don’t care
    about the publicity, because i’m not trying to sell anyone anything.

    oh, and stop e-mailing me too…

    -bowerbird

  11. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    Discuss the point? I was pointing out the difficulty of selling books in light of self-publishing being repeatedly criticized about this as if it exists in a vacuum (http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2009/11/self-publishing-sales-statistics.html). I think that’s valid. You don’t. I don’t how much of a discussion I can have with someone who says, “Gee, great insight.”

    And dude, using an unclickable name online is hiding because you don’t have to be accountable for anything you say. You can spread as much bile as you like. Which is why I emailed you because it’s the only way you can be addressed directly.

  12. well, if i’m going to continue the conversation here,
    i will first have to clear up some bad misconceptions.

    first, henry baum paints me as “cynical”. i guess that
    he imagines me sitting at my computer here, scowling.

    what a laugh! i’m actually sitting here chuckling away!
    i’m having _fun_, folks, or i would be somewhere else!

    indeed, i would be laughing out loud, not just chuckling,
    except there’s something sad about the limp impotence
    being offered up by henry baum, and it’d be cruel to laugh
    at something so pathetic. but a mere chuckle is alright. :+)

    and lest someone indict me for dragging in penis humor,
    let me point out that you, henry, started it, by calling me
    “a prick”. which i would say connotes “hard and sharp”…

    anyway…

    your conclusion — that it’s difficult for _everyone_
    to sell books these days, including the big houses
    – is obvious. that was my point, which you ignore.

    i didn’t ignore your point. i discussed it, as fully as
    it _can_ be discussed, when i said it is _obvious_.
    (it’s not a very long discussion, true, but it’s enough.)

    you’ve said nothing that people didn’t already know.
    so there wasn’t really any reason to say it _at_all_…

    but if you really want to discuss aspects of the issue,
    i can turn it into something actually worth discussing…

    because when big houses talk about a book they publish
    “not selling”, they mean that it sold 5,000 copies, or less.
    that is, it failed to “recoup”, or earn out the advance paid.

    whereas 5,000 copies for a self-publisher would be great.

    so even though the words we use happen to be the same,
    when you get down to specifics, the situations are _not_…

    furthermore, big houses generally put physical copies in
    brick-and-mortar bookstores. self-publishers? mostly not.

    thus the big-house books at least have a _chance_ to sell
    in larger numbers, even if most of ‘em don’t actually do so.
    that is what most people are talking about — that _chance_…

    whereas only a sliver of a percentage of self-published books
    will generally be able to capitalize on _any_ chance to sell big,
    mostly because very few will even be carried in bookstores…

    nor will they be reviewed in the big newspapers or magazines,
    because those outlets are owned by the same corporations who
    own the big publishing houses, and they scratch their own back.

    moreover, the big houses are excellent at placing their books
    in _libraries_ across the country, based solely on their imprint.
    this means that even if your own library doesn’t have your book,
    they can order it via interlibrary-loan from _some_ other library,
    and this can be a very important consideration for some writers,
    since their history dating to childhood has fond library memories.

    finally, if your book was published by a big house, the odds are
    that it has an agent attached to it as well, and the combination of
    those two things means it will be much more likely to be pitched
    for ancillary purposes, such as commercial tie-ins, film deals, etc.

    and if a big-house book _does_ get picked up for that, the numbers
    on the contract will be much bigger than for a self-published book,
    because the book will be seen as already having a stamp of quality.

    now, are all these “advantages” really “worth it” when you factor in
    that subjecting your book to control by a big publishing house means
    that your corporate overlords are gonna rip you off like a drunk tourist?

    i can’t say, and neither can anyone else. each author will have to
    make that decision for themselves personally. but at least if they
    factor in all of the considerations that i’ve listed here, they will be
    much better prepared to answer the question than if they had merely
    listened to henry baum tell ‘em that “it’s hard out there for everyone”.

    i believe in self-publishing myself. i hate the corporate publishers.
    i wish they’d die. i have promoted d.i.y. ever since the punk days.
    in my opinion, any writer is a fool to sign with a big house now, but
    i want writers to make educated decisions about how they proceed.
    and that means i call b.s. on simplistic “analyses” like this blog here.

    so there you go, henry baum. i’ve turned your hum-drum topic into
    something actually worth talking about, except you will have nothing
    of value to add, because i covered most of the waterfront right there,
    while you cannot rationally discuss your way out of a wet paper bag…

    -bowerbird

  13. Profile wp-user-avatar wp-user-avatar-45 alignnone photo of admin

    I started it? First, that’s infantile. Second, read your first comment.

    If you bothered to read my 3:AM piece, you’d see I say that traditional publishing has significant advantages, as I have on this site in the past. Instead you said, “oh, i see now. it took you _two_ posts to come to a conclusion
    that is so obvious that it didn’t even need to be made.” I don’t care if you’re laughing maniacally as you’re writing it, it’s still cynical and too quick to be dismissive.

Leave a Reply